Here’s my reason for citing these films: Many well-informed people worry that Hollywood’s courtship of China’s big bucks could result in a gradual surrender of its creative freedom. “Hollywood already is allowing China to determine which movies get made,” says Robert Daly, the savvy director of the Kissinger Institute on China, which is part of the Wilson Center.
Some 16 members of Congress have signed a letter warning of the dangers if Hollywood’s power players continue to sell important assets to China. Negotiations for a Chinese acquisition of MGM (officially denied) is the latest alarm bell as is Paramount’s billion-dollar Shanghai slate deal. “Beijing could dictate what is and isn’t made,” said one of the congressional signers, Frank Wolf.
In short: Will there be more Great Walls and fewer glimpses of Moonlight? China’s growing clout in exhibition matches that in production. AMC, the world’s largest theater circuit, is controlled by the Dalian Wanda Group, which has quietly bought up Carmike, Odeon and UCI theaters. With Regal, AMC also co-owns Open Road Films. In the giant theme-park business, China has been open to co-ventures like Disneyland, but also has aggressively opened more China-centric parks to compete with them.
Now, I realize that paranoia about China’s influence may seem Trumpian and xenophobic, but I return to Daly’s other question: When is the last time you’ve seen an honest movie from China? Or about China? The flow of films like Red Corner or Seven Years In Tibet was effectively shut down a decade ago when the regime’s censors decided to exercise their muscle. “There have been no films in recent years that depict mainland China in a critical light,” Daly points out. “Instead, China saved he world in The Martian and provided a stunning backdrop in Skyfall.”
So what does China want from Hollywood? It wants a “safe” place to grow its assets along with global economic clout. To this end, China needs to continue distributing Hollywood blockbusters, provided Beijing can control the flow and retain at least 75% of the box office revenues. Chinese companies also want to buy key assets – Legendary Entertainment ($3.5 billion) and Dick Clark Productions ($1 billion), plus a variety of independent entities like Voltage Pictures ($350 million). The pace of dealmaking has been so intense that even Beijing, worried about capital outflow, has slowed down a few of the negotiations — MGM and Voltage, for example.”
Assets aside, China also wants an important presence in global filmmaking – hence The Great Wall, a $150 million co-production starring Matt Damon and directed by Zhang Yimou. The story focuses on a mercenary (Damon) who joins random Chinese fighters to resist a band of invading monsters. To Manohla Dargis of the New York Times, the film is “an overstuffed spectacle that works overtime as a testament to China’s might.” Variety said the movie “extolled Chinese culture and military excellence.”
Despite massive marketing, The Great Wall has not been the worldwide hit that China envisioned. Co-produced by Legendary East and distributed in the U.S. by Universal, the movie has grossed a disappointing $34 million in the U.S. in its first two weeks. Its clunkiness reflects the fact that that “China’s film industry isn’t run by the talent, it’s run by the Communist Party,” Daly points out. The present regime requires filmmakers to “serve socialism” by offering uplifting messages about the party.
American filmmakers who have worked on Chinese locations are familiar with the quirks of the censors. As China gains increasing control over studio slates, these problems may become even more severe. Films with challenging social themes will magically disappear. The heavies in superhero movies may start reflecting a different point of view. Issues of creative control remain fuzzy in newly formed slate deals such as Paramount’s billion-dollar arrangement with Huahua Media and Shanghai Film Group. Bob Bakish, the new CEO of Viacom, plans to meet with his Chinese partners later this month, but since he has dispensed with his studio chief Brad Grey, it is unclear who will speak for the production side.
The bottom line: China’s big bucks look great to Hollywood. But no one has successfully computed the price.